Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91

Vol. XXIX No. 22, March 1-15, 2020

Profile of an Architect

by R.V. Rajan

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Sheila Sri Prakash of Shilpa Architects Planners Designers is one of India’s leading architects. In fact, she is counted among the most influential female architects in the world today. She has completed several architectural projects, many of which are known for their designs inspired by local arts, culture and heritage. She is also reputed for her work in designing energy-efficient buildings.

Interestingly, Sheila almost did not make it to the world of architecture – she was denied admission to the Anna University School of architecture in 1972. Armed with excellent marks in the pre-university degree from Stella Maris College, she went to the School of Architecture seeking admission. A professor in the interview panel, obviously a male chauvinist, told her, ‘You have all the qualifications for this course, but why do you want to deprive a boy from getting a career?’ Though shocked beyond words at the gender bias of the gentleman, her father, an ex-army man who had been a great source of support to his only child, used his good offices to secure her admission in the prestigious college.

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Again, Architecture was not her first choice as a career. Her first love was classical dancing in which she was trained from the age of 3. She performed her Arangetram at the age of 6 years in Bombay. The chief guest at the Arangetram declared her ‘a child prodigy’. It was then that her father decided to shift base to Chennai where Sheila could get the best training in dancing. Her mother was a big force behind her foray into dancing and other creative pursuits, ensuring that she was trained by the best masters in the art. She learnt Kuchipidi, Mohini Attam and Odissi apart from playing the Veena and painting. After training under the famous dance maestro Dhandayudhapani Pillai, she even had her second Arangetram when she was nine and started giving public performances.

She was well on her way to a career in dancing. An offer for a role in a movie as a heroine followed, which she refused because by that time the architecture bug had caught her. Why architecture? ‘I was good in science subjects in Rosary Matriculation School & during college days. I found out that Architecture provided an opportunity to combine my creative abilities with my interest in science and maths’ she says.

So she plunged into the course with all the commitment she is famous for. Cupid intervened when she was in her third year in college, where she met Sri Prakash, a gentleman three years her senior who was doing a course in Chemical Engineering at ACTECH at the same campus. As soon as Sri Prakash completed his degree and joined L & T as a Management trainee, they decided to tie the proverbial knot with full blessings from both sets of parents. Their marriage was held in 1974 – Prakash was 22 and Sheila was only 18.

‘While I was willing to give up my love for architecture for my soulmate, it was Sri who insisted that I must finish the course. He was a pillar of support to me all my life, so much so that he gave up a very promising career at L& T to be with me, lending me his shoulder in all my initiatives. I would not have achieved whatever I have achieved in life but for Sri and his unflinching faith in me’. Sheila became emotional when saying this because she lost her life partner of over 40 years last year to cancer.

‘By the time I had to face the final exams, I was pregnant. Bhargav, my first born, came into the world just two days before the final exams. I, however, appeared for the exam and just managed to pass the exams to get my B.Arch degree in 1977. I was now ready to start my life as an architect’ said Sheila.
After spending two years with Karpur Associates where she felt constrained, Sheila decided to become an entrepreneur. Shilpa Architects was started in 1979 with the office located in her own home at Gandhi Nagar. When she wanted to build her office in the spacious compound of the house, her father gave her permission subject to her ensuring that none of the trees in the compound were felled.

Sheila says, ‘I accepted the challenge. I built four modules around the trees with total office space of 400 square feet. The cost was only Rs 20,000. That effort taught me the importance of working in nature and space. The modules had sky lit roofs. I decided not to emphasise on loud materials in construction yet achieve aesthetics working with tight budgets. The seeds of my passion for green buildings were probably sown at that time.’

As early as the 1980s, she even experimented with rain water harvesting in her compound by embedding stones on a sand bed so that the rain water could percolate down instead of running away. A pioneering effort indeed. Interestingly, the idea behind the system was made compulsory by the state of Tamil Nadu in 2003.

In 1987, she had the distinction of designing homes for economically weaker sections on an invitation from the World Bank . She created incremental houses which provided sheltered living spaces from day one that could be value-added in terms of other facilities and become permanent homes in later years.
As a talented creative artist, Sheila believes in using indo-centric arts & crafts in her designs.

Emphasising the importance of space in all her designs, Sheila says, ‘I try to carve out spaces instead of enclosing everything within the four walls of a room. A client was so impressed with the effective use of space that I had used in his project that he commented, ‘Your spaces dance’.

Sheila tries to integrate the landscape design into the design process as a working layer and not a mere cosmetic layer.

Her work in spaciology particularly as it applies to healthcare and the leisure, wellness and hospitality industry examines the impact of the built environment upon human behaviour.This obsession with spaces also led her to researching temples and how they use the design to depict different moods. Thanks to her background in classical dance, she explored the Bhava, Raga and Thala aspects in many of the temples. According to her, the big temple in Tanjore evokes humility, Konarak temple depicts love and the Ananthapadmanabha Swamy temple in Trivandrum represents peace and shanthi.

When I sought clarifications about green buildings, she said that it involves using natural lighting and renewable energy in designs. Such buildings must have provisions for water conservation and natural light sources, exploiting the natural wind flows, accounting for sewage treatment, etc. She is proud of the fact that her new office located in ‘Muse’ in Tiruvanmiyur was one of the two buildings in Chennai given the Platinum rating by Leadership in Energy & Environment designs (LEEDS) in 2012. The other building to get the same rating that year was ITC Grand Chola in Chennai. She is a founding member of the Indian Green Building Council, Chennai Chapter.

Several of her architectural designs can be seen at Mahindra World City (New Chennai), the Madras Art House (Cholamandal Artists’ Village), Kuchipudi Art Academy and the Paranur railway station. Other recent projects of Shilpa Architects include the HITEX exhibition center in Hyderabad and the South City Township by Larsen & Toubro, an approximately 4,000-apartment residential township. Another large scale housing project is within Mahindra World City as well as the upcoming Taj 5-star beach resort near Pondicherry and the regional headquarters for the State Bank of India.

In 2011, she became the first Indian architect to serve on the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Design Innovation, a 16-member team of international experts in design and innovation. She served on the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on the role of arts in society, in recognition of her signature works of architecture that feature art, culture and heritage. As part of her role at the Forum, she developed the ‘Reciprocal Design Index’ that details parameters and metrics surrounding sustainable design.

Sheila is also the founder of the Reciprocity Foundation that tries to create awareness at the grass roots level about the challenges faced by our planet and humanity. It seeks to build collaborative and inclusive eco system that would lead to sustainability.

Among the several awards she has won over the years, she considers very prestigious the Lifetime Achievement in the field of Architecture Award 2019 by Builders, Architects and Building Materials (BAM), in association with CII Real Estate & Building Technology Exhibition.

When I posed the question about the future of Shilpa Architects she proudly said, ‘The future is secure in the safe hands of my daughter Pavithra.’ With a Bachelor Degree in Architecture from School of Architecture and Planning, Anna University and a Masters in Architecture and Urban Design from Columbia University. Pavithra is surely a chip off the old block. She is as much a multi-dimensional creative artist/architect as her mother is. Sheila’s son Bhargav has a Bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering from CEG, Anna University and a Masters in Engineering from the University of Michigan. He runs a self-funded and mission-driven startup that has designed and developed ‘Fooya!,’ a mobile health-gaming App. Sheila is also blessed with three lovely grand-daughters.

For all her achievements, Sheila continues to be a humble and lovable human being, very popular among family, friends and colleagues. I am proud of the fact that such an internationally reputed architect designed my small independent home in Chennai, 38 years ago.

Comments

  1. Sumitra Bannerji says:

    Sheila Ji is a living legend of architecture and design from our country. Her ideas are far ahead of our times like the reciprocity festival that she organized to help our city become more sustainable. I attended every festival and the combination of music concerts and the Kalakshethra Pushkarni with eco friendly ideas, has changed the way my family lives today. Very nice to read and am shocked that she got rejected by that professor. Wonder what he has to say now about a female taking away a man’s career because I am sure Sheila ji has provided jobs for many men over her career.

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